While all around super-hero franchises are collapsing under their own grotesque weight – Batman v Superman, X-Men Apocalypse, Suicide Squad – Marvel stands alone in its uncanny ability to churn out hit after hit.
With Doctor Strange, it’s just showing off. Its lead character is a beloved but relatively fringe inhabitant of the Marvel Universe, a man whose trippy adventures through time and space were directly inspired by the LSD consumption of his writers. If ever there were a recipe for super-hero disaster, this is it. That Marvel spent over $160m on the project, convincing Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton to star, shows how confident the studio has become in the integrity of its universe. The result is the tightest, funniest, most refreshing super-hero movie in years.
The plot is recognisable to the point of cliché: Dr Stephen Strange is a rockstar of the neurosurgery world, cherry-picking the best, most fascinatingly mangled cases in order to further his career. Dying old lady? No thanks, I’ll take the brain-implant patient struck by lightning. A terrible, inevitable accident robs him of his greatest asset: his nimble fingers; his search for a cure leads him to Nepal (not Tibet, as in the comics, for fear of annoying the Chinese), where an androgynous wizard (Swinton) throws open the doors of perception.
Cumberbatch expertly juggles melodrama with bathos, deftly defusing the film’s more overblown moments while making his inherently preposterous character just about plausible enough to root for.
The real selling points, however, are the mind-bending, MC Escher-inspired action sequences, in which entire city blocks fold and blossom like a kaleidoscope. Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a clear inspiration, but in terms of technical prowess, this film exceeds anything we’ve seen before. Almost as spectacular are the acid-trip jaunts to the astral plain, where rainbow-coloured orbs blob around in a rare instance of genuinely impressive 3D.
The superb visuals and all-round quality of the performances are enough to compensate for the fact there isn’t really an antagonist to speak of, and that the obligatory love story is paper thin.
Director Scott Derrickson’s movie bears all the aesthetic hallmarks of a Marvel project while also feeling largely self-contained, with a freedom to explore ideas – especially those of a New Age variety – that don’t easily fit with the muscles and fists of better-known francises. The mid-credits sequence all but confirms Strange will appear in the upcoming Thor movie; it will be interesting to see how Marvel integrates its new hot-property into the wider fabric of its world.
First published in City A.M.